Signs and Symbols - Timothy R. Quigley

Signs and Symbols
Vladimir Nabokov
For the fourth time in as many years they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to
bring a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. He had no desires. Man-made objects were to him
either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no
use could be found in his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten
him (anything in the gadget line for instance was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle: a basket with
ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.
At the time of his birth they had been married already for a long time; a score of years had elapsed, and
now they were quite old. Her drab gray hair was done anyhow. She wore cheap black dresses. Unlike other women
of her age (such as Mrs. Sol, their next-door neighbor, whose face was all pink and mauve with paint and whose hat
was a cluster of brookside flowers), she presented a naked white countenance to the fault- finding light of spring
days. Her husband, who in the old country had been a fairly successful businessman, was now wholly dependent on
his brother Isaac, a real American of almost forty years standing. They seldom saw him and had nicknamed him “the
That Friday everything went wrong. The underground train lost its life current between two stations, and
for a quarter of an hour one could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of one's heart and the rustling of newspapers.
The bus they had to take next kept them waiting for ages; and when it did come, it was crammed with garrulous
high-school children. It was raining hard as they walked up the brown path leading to the sanitarium. There they
waited again; and instead of their boy shuffling into the room as he usually did (his poor face blotched with acne, illshaven, sullen, and confused), a nurse they knew, and did not care for, appeared at last and brightly explained that he
had again attempted to take his life. He was all right, she said, but a visit might disturb him. The place was so
miserably understaffed, and things got mislaid or mixed up so easily, that they decided not to leave their present in
the office but to bring it to him next time they came.
She waited for her husband to open his umbrella and then took his arm. He kept clearing his throat in a
special resonant way he had when he was upset. They reached the bus-stop shelter on the other side of the street and
he closed his umbrella. A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny half-dead unfledged bird was
helplessly twitching in a puddle.
During the long ride to the subway station, she and her husband did not exchange a word; and every time
she glanced at his old hands (swollen veins, brown-spotted skin), clasped and twitching upon the handle of his
umbrella, she felt the mounting pressure of tears. As she looked around trying to hook her mind onto something, it
gave her a kind of soft shock, a mixture of compassion and wonder, to notice that one of the passengers, a girl with
dark hair and grubby red toenails, was weeping on the shoulder of an older woman. Whom did that woman
resemble? She resembled Rebecca Borisovna, whose daughter had married one of the Soloveichik - in Minsk, years
The last time he had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor's words, a masterpiece of
inventiveness; he would have succeeded, had not an envious fellow patient thought he was learning to fly - and
stopped him. What he really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.
The system of his delusions had been the subject of an elaborate paper in a scientific monthly, but long
before that she and her husband had puzzled it out for themselves. "Referential mania," Herman Brink had called it.
In these very rare cases the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his
personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy - because he considers himself to be so much
more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky
transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts
are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form
patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything
he is the theme. Some of the spies are detached observers, such are glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as
coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others again (running water, storms) are
hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must
be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The
very air he exhales is indexed and filed away. If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate
surroundings - but alas it is not! With distance the torrents of wild scandal increase in volume and volubility. The
silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast plains; and still farther, great mountains
of unbearable solidity and height sum up in terms of granite and groaning firs the ultimate truth of his being.
When they emerged from the thunder and foul air of the subway, the last dregs of the day were mixed with
the street lights. She wanted to buy some fish for supper, so she handed him the basket of jelly jars, telling him to go
home. He walked up to the third landing and then remembered he had given her his keys earlier in the day.
In silence he sat down on the steps and in silence rose when some ten minutes later she came, heavily
trudging upstairs, wanly smiling, shaking her head in deprecation of her silliness. They entered their two-room flat
and he at once went to the mirror. Straining the corners of his mouth apart by means of his thumbs, with a horrible
masklike grimace, he removed his new hopelessly uncomfortable dental plate and severed the long tusks of saliva
connecting him to it. He read his Russian-language newspaper while she laid the table. Still reading, he ate the pale
victuals that needed no teeth. She knew his moods and was also silent.
When he had gone to bed, she remained in the living room with her pack of soiled cards and her old
albums. Across the narrow yard where the rain tinkled in the dark against some battered ash cans, windows were
blandly alight and in one of them a black-trousered man with his bare elbows raised could be seen lying supine on a
untidy bed. She pulled the blind down and examined the photographs. As a baby he looked more surprised than most
babies. From a fold in the album, a German maid they had had in Leipzig and her fat-faced fiance fell out. Minsk,
the Revolution, Leipzig, Berlin, Leipzig, a slanting house front badly out of focus. Four years old, in a park:
moodily, shyly, with puckered forehead, looking away from an eager squirrel as he would from any other stranger.
Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train
accidents, cancerous growths--until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried
about. Age six - that was when he drew wonderful birds with human hands and feet, and suffered from insomnia like
a grown-up man. His cousin, now a famous chess player. He again, aged about eight, already difficult to understand,
afraid of the wallpaper in the passage, afraid of a certain picture in a book which merely showed an idyllic
landscape with rocks on a hillside and an old cart wheel hanging from the branch of a leafless tree. Aged ten: the
year they left Europe. The shame, the pity, the humiliating difficulties, the ugly, vicious, backward children he was
with in that special school. And then came a time in his life, coinciding with a long convalescence after pneumonia,
when those little phobias of his which his parents had stubbornly regarded as the eccentricities of a prodigiously
gifted child hardened as it were into a dense tangle of logically interacting illusions, making him totally inaccessible
to normal minds.
This, and much more, she accepted - for after all living did mean accepting the loss of one joy after another,
not even joys in her case – mere possibilities of improvement. She thought of the endless waves of pain that for
some reason or other she and her husband had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some
unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness,
which is either crushed, or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in
unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his
simian stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches.
It was past midnight when from the living room she heard her husband moan; and presently he staggered
in, wearing over his nightgown the old overcoat with astrakhan collar which he much preferred to the nice blue
bathrobe he had.
"I can't sleep," he cried.
"Why," she asked, "why can't you sleep? You were tired."
"I can't sleep because I am dying," he said and lay down on the couch.
"Is it your stomach? Do you want me to call Dr. Solov?"
"No doctors, no doctors," he moaned, "To the devil with doctors! We must get him out of there quick.
Otherwise we'll be responsible. Responsible!" he repeated and hurled himself into a sitting position, both feet on the
floor, thumping his forehead with his clenched fist.
"All right," she said quietly, "we shall bring him home tomorrow morning."
"I would like some tea," said her husband and retired to the bathroom.
Bending with difficulty, she retrieved some playing cards and a photograph or two that had slipped from
the couch to the floor: knave of hearts, nine of spades, ace of spades, Elsa and her bestial beau. He returned in high
spirits, saying in a loud voice:
"I have it all figured out. We will give him the bedroom. Each of us will spend part of the night near him
and the other part on this couch. By turns. We will have the doctor see him at least twice a week. It does not matter
what the Prince says. He won't have to say much anyway because it will come out cheaper."
The telephone rang. It was an unusual hour for their telephone to ring. His left slipper had come off and he
groped for it with his heel and toe as he stood in the middle of the room, and childishly, toothlessly, gaped at his
wife. Having more English than he did, it was she who attended to calls.
"Can I speak to Charlie," said a girl's dull little voice.
"What number you want? No. That is not the right number."
The receiver was gently cradled. Her hand went to her old tired heart.
He smiled a quick smile and immediately resumed his excited monologue. They would fetch him as soon
as it was day. Knives would have to be kept in a locked drawer. Even at his worst he presented no danger to other
The telephone rang a second time. The same toneless anxious young voice asked for Charlie.
"You have the incorrect number. I will tell you what you are doing: you are turning the letter O instead of
the zero."
They sat down to their unexpected festive midnight tea. The birthday present stood on the table. He sipped
noisily; his face was flushed; every now and then he imparted a circular motion to his raised glass so as to make the
sugar dissolve more thoroughly . The vein on the side of his bald head where there was a large birthmark stood out
conspicuously and, although he had shaved that morning, a silvery bristle showed on his chin. While she poured him
another glass of tea, he put on his spectacles and re-examined with pleasure the luminous yellow, green, red little
jars. His clumsy moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels: apricot, grape, beech plum, quince. He had got to crab
apple, when the telephone rang again.